Inspired by a successful Santa Barbara-area youth law clinic in Santa Barbara, recent law school graduate Deborah E. Jurgensen decided to help found a similar program in Ventura, with a similar focus on legal education and representation for teens.
The Ventura Teen Legal Clinic board currently consists of six members, all Ventura College of Law alumni, who filed nonprofit articles of incorporation last week.
The mission, said Jurgensen, is “to serve the at-risk youth of our community, [to aid] teen populations through legal education by making presentations to classrooms, offering after school programs, [to teach] kids their rights and responsibility under the law. If they need legal representation, we will find them attorneys, free.”
The exception is for juveniles who have criminal cases pending and would have already been appointed lawyers by the court.
“A lot of legal aid programs target primarily adults,” Jurgensen said. “But every issue you think an adult could face, a child could face — child support, paternity, abuse situations.”
Other issues prevalent in the juvenile court system are contract law and employment issues.“
“There are a lot of educational issues like disciplinary proceedings in the educational system,” Jurgensen said. “And obviously, the biggest hot button issue is drugs. [We plan to offer a] drug prevention kind of program where we can absolutely share info about drugs and legal ramifications [of drug use].”
Jurgensen cites successful programs offered as electives in two area continuation schools: Chaparral in Ojai, and Fillmore Community School. The course, called Street Law, is named after a textbook based on a successful program originally piloted three decades ago by the Georgetown University Law School.
The programs have made an impact on Santa Barbara-area participants.
“We had the classic story of one of the students at the Santa Barbara Street Law class who was stopped by the cops with some other kids in the car,” said Jurgensen. “The cop said, ‘Let me search your pockets,’ and the kid said, ‘I don’t have to. I know my Fourth Amendment rights.’ “
Jurgensen’s experience in the classroom involves teaching a quick synopsis of the Constitution, federal and state law and the legal shifts that occur when a person turns 18. She often includes diagrams of the criminal court room and a quick rundown of “the players” in a trial.
But Jurgensen has experienced difficulty in establishing a regular elective course in the mainstream classroom.
“So much of what they do is based on state standards and teaching to standards,” she said. “We’re also reaching out into the community, offering business cards with a hotline number.”
She predicts the cost of operation will be low for the nonprofit and involve only “things like phone line and malpractice insurance.”
“I personally could’ve been classified as an at-risk teen,” said Jurgensen. “I have a real heart for teens, on the brink of adulthood. I find it a really magical time in a kids’ life. It’s a wonderful opportunity to turn out better citizens, people that have a duty to their community.”
Jurgensen said, “[Teens will] make better choices and don’t have to get embroiled in the legal system.”